“A Billion Here, a Billion There”

Did Dirksen ever say, " A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money"? (or anything very close to that?)

Perhaps not. Based on an exhaustive search of the paper and audio records of The Dirksen Congressional Center, staffers there have found no evidence that Dirksen ever uttered the phrase popularly attributed to him.

Archivists undertook the search after studying research statistics showing that more than 25 percent of inquiries have to do with the quote or its variations.

Here is what they examined: all of the existing audio tapes of the famed "Ev and Charlie" and "Ev and Jerry" shows, newspaper clippings in the Dirksen Papers, about 12,500 pages of Dirksen's own speech notes, transcripts of his speeches and media appearances, transcripts of Republican leadership press conferences, and Dirksen's statements on the Senate floor as documented in the Congressional Record.

Although Dirksen rarely prepared the text of a speech, preferring to rely on notes, he would jot down a few words to remind him of a particular turn of phrase. For example, in referring to the public debt or excessive government spending, Dirksen would write the word "pothole" to remind him to tell the following story, on this occasion in reference to the debt ceiling:

"As I think of this bill, and the fact that the more progress we make the deeper we go into the hole, I am reminded of a group of men who were working on a street. They had dug quite a number of holes. When they got through, they failed to puddle or tamp the earth when it was returned to the hole, and they had a nice little mound, which was quite a traffic hazard.

"Not knowing what to do with it, they sat down on the curb and had a conference. After a while, one of the fellows snapped his fingers and said, ‘I have it. I know how we will get rid of that overriding earth and remove the hazard. We will just dig the hole deeper.'" [Congressional Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].

On the same occasion, Dirksen relied on yet another "spending" story, one he labeled "cat in the well":

"One time in the House of Representatives [a colleague] told me a story about a proposition that a teacher put to a boy. He said, ‘Johnny, a cat fell in a well 100 feet deep. Suppose that cat climbed up 1 foot and then fell back 2 feet. How long would it take the cat to get out of the well?'

"Johnny worked assiduously with his slate and slate pencil for quite a while, and then when the teacher came down and said, ‘How are you getting along?' Johnny said, ‘Teacher, if you give me another slate and a couple of slate pencils, I am pretty sure that in the next 30 minutes I can land that cat in hell.'

"If some people get any cheer out of a $328 billion debt ceiling, I do not find much to cheer about concerning it." [Congressional Record, June 16, 1965, p. 13884].

But there are no such reminders for the "A billion here, a billion there . . . " tag line as there surely should have been given Dirksen's note-making tendencies. He spoke often and passionately about the debt ceiling, federal spending, and the growth of government. Yet there is no authoritative reference to the "billion" phrase.

The chief evidence in support of Dirksen making the statement comes from people who claim to have heard him. The Library of Congress, for example, cites someone's personal observation on the campaign trail as evidence. The Dirksen Center has received calls from people who heard Dirksen say those words, some even providing the date of the event. But cross-checking that information with the records has, so far, turned up nothing in the way of confirmation.

The closest documented statement came at a joint Senate-House Republican leadership press conference on March 8, 1962, when Dirksen said, "The favorite sum of money is $1 billion – a billion a year for a fatter federal payroll, a billion here, a billion there." [EMD Papers, Republican Congressional Leadership File, f. 25] But the "and pretty soon you're talking real money" is missing.

In another close call, the New York Times, January 23, 1961, quoted Dirksen: "Look at education – two-and-one-half billion – a billion for this, a billion for that, a billion for something else. Three to five billion for public works. You haven't got any budget balance left. You'll be deeply in the red." [Cited in Byron Hulsey's "Everett Dirksen and the Modern Presidents," Ph.D. dissertation (May 1998, University of Texas, p. 226]

Of course, the Dirksen Papers do not document completely the late Senator's comments. For example, The Center that bears his name does not have his testimony before committees. Their collection of Congressional Records ends in 1965, omitting the last four years of Dirksen's life and career – he might have employed the phrase only late, although witnesses claim he said it throughout his career. Dirksen's campaign speeches tended not to produce transcripts, only sketchy notes or abbreviated newspaper accounts. Dirksen also held center stage before the video age, meaning that many remarks, particularly those in campaigns, escaped capture.

Bottom line: the late Senate Minority Leader certainly would have endorsed the meaning behind the phrase, but it is questionable that he ever coined it.

Update, May 25, 2004. A gentleman who called The Center with a reference question relayed that he sat by Dirksen on a flight once and asked him about the famous quote. Dirksen replied, "Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it."

Update, January 15, 2009. We received a call from someone in Pennsylvania who recalled a very clear, even emphatic memory of Senator Dirksen uttering this famous phrase on the “Johnny Carson Show.” This is the second person who shared such a recollection. Unfortunately, a Google search failed to turn up confirmation—apparently the “official” Web site for the “Tonight Show” has video beginning only in 1969—Dirksen died in September of that year.

Update, September 25, 2012. Historian John Steele Gordon concurs with the January 15, 2009, update. He also recalls Dirksen making the statement on Johnny Carson’s show. With regard to the lack of hard documentation authenticating the phrase, Gordon writes, “But I really don’t see a historiographical problem here. It’s long been attributed to Senator Dirksen and several people, including myself, remember him saying it at the same time and the same place. For this historian, at least, that’s good enough.” [Gordon to Mackaman, e-mail, September 25, 2012, Dirksen Information File]